Madagascar is a poor country. The majority of its inhabitants live near to subsistence levels. Despite this, Madagascar has made some modest progress in recent years in attracting tourists. Go to the website of any tour operator specialising in the country and you can see what Madagascar offers . It is in the Indian Ocean. It has beautiful mountains, thousands of square miles of rain forest, an immense diversity of wildlife – and paradise beaches along much of its coastline. Not surprisingly, it appeals to eco-tourists but it has also found a niche at the luxury end of the market for people seeking exotic beach holidays. Despite its problems, it is easy to see that many people would regard Madagascar as a fabulous, enchanting place to visit.
In 1942, Madagascar was still a French colony. As the Second World War gradually spread across South East Asia, Madagascar’s location made it potentially an important base for military operations in the Indian Ocean. Churchill feared that the Vichy French government would allow the Japanese unrestricted access to Madagascar’s ports so, in May of that year, he ordered a pre-emptive invasion by Allied Forces. After the initial capture of Diego Suarez on the northern tip of the island there was little serious resistance by the Vichy forces. By late autumn 1942, the whole of Madagascar was under Allied control.
Of course, Madagascar had then to be defended for the rest of the war.
The diary, pictured below, was kept by a young British gunner – a Londoner – who served with the East Africa Brigade, which provided the occupying troops. He was based at Diego Suarez. His job was to be part of a team manning the heavy artillery set up to defend the harbour against attack by air or sea. The diary has daily entries from January 1st to June 30th, 1943. During this period, the gunner experiences no military activity. A couple of times enemy aircraft fly over Diego Suarez and at one point there is a flutter of concern over a ship sighted on the horizon but this proves not to be an enemy vessel. The only “action” involves several local people accidentally wounded during a training exercise.
So – if there’s no action – what makes this wartime diary interesting? Well, first of all, it has survived. Whatever any diary from this period contains, it is bound to add at least fractionally to our knowledge of the time and place. Second, although it’s not too difficult to find military diaries kept by officers – educated chaps that they were – it’s much less common to come across the diary of a young conscript.
Finally, the diary is interesting precisely because nothing happened. Nothing except the relentless, day-to-day grind of an overseas posting that is. The writer is bored, homesick and miserable. He and his comrades are often ill with diarrhoea or malaria. The tone of the diary is one of constant low level grumbling. In fact, the extent and variety of the grumbling is interesting in itself. He complains about the weather; the squalor of local conditions; the privations of the accommodation; the poor quality food; the unreliability of the only wireless set; the failure of the army to keep his pay up to date; the poor transport infrastructure; the behaviour of the “natives”; the behaviour of the officers; and – most of all – the constant, pointless emphasis on petty regulation and “spit and polish”. There are numerous passages that deal with these difficulties. Here are some examples:
We had to change our beds today, for three planks of wood, everybody must have the same, even if you were nice and comfortable before. Just like our battery. I suspect it’s all [the Major’s] doings, even if you have your own camp bed, when the day comes for inspection, you have to hide it and show three planks with kit on.
Anyway we got everything on ferry and a captain came down and told us to come back. Just like the army . . . we all cursed very much, what a life. When we got back to camp we find we have to abandon our tents and live in the camp in a rotten old hut. Again. What a life.
The place [Diego Suarez] is very dirty with plenty of bugs and fleas and other insects making some places rotten
Film show cancelled. My visit to the dentist was in vain. Dentist is sick. I believe too much beer over the weekend.
Lay out all the kit for the Brigadier who is supposed to be coming . . . . but with all this dust it’s wicked, everything gets covered in it in no time. No film show this evening owing to it breaking down.
Several times our young gunner writes plaintively (and movingly) that he just wishes he could go home to his girlfriend (or possibly wife), Joan, whom he misses greatly. The title of this blog is a quote from the diary.
At no point does the diarist give any sense that he feels part of the collective enterprise that is the wider war effort. We tend to picture our Second World War soldiers as dedicated individuals, motivated by a belief in the rightness of the Allied cause. I’m sure indeed, that many of them were like that – but it must have been bloody hard to keep that faith constantly. Maybe the writer of this diary also felt like that sometimes. Just because he doesn’t say it, it doesn’t mean that he didn’t feel it.
What this diary chiefly reflects though, is the joyless, powerless, day-to-day experience of many young conscripts, torn away from home and despatched to live in dreadful conditions in the most unpleasant corners of the world where – even when they were in no immediate physical danger – they probably never felt safe. The only high points in our diarist’s life are the regular games of football, listening to the wireless (when it is working) and a two week leave period at a converted sawmill in the town of Joffreville where soldiers could rest and recuperate. In June a brothel, “licensed by army medical authorities” with “white and almost white girls” is opened in Diego Suarez for the use of officers. The writer hears rumours that a brothel for other ranks will follow soon, with “girls from Kenya” but even this does not cheer him up. He finds it an appalling prospect – “What a racket!!!”
I don’t write any of this in a spirit of criticism by the way. I’ve been known personally, to sink to the depths of despair during a wet weekend’s camping in Cornwall. I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for these young working class lads, called up and sent far from home at an age when I was living very pleasantly thank you as a 1970s art student. My own dad spent his early twenties in India, Burma and Malaya with the Royal Engineers. In 1945 he was among those British troops sent to Hiroshima to help with the clean up after the bomb fell. How he must have wished also, how much they must all have wished, every day, that they could just go home.